Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Alexandra Bus Boycott

Recent threat of a bus strike by private bus owners in Sri Lanka demanding the increase of bus fare reminded of what a penny did in 1957 in another country. The increase of the bus fare from 4p to 5p by a bus company brought about a bus boycott which lasted for three months. About 15,000 people walked to and from work on all working days (nearly 30km daily). Supporting boycotts in other areas also drew huge crowds. Total number of participants reached the 60,000 mark.

The country was the Apartheid ruled South Africa. The native black population had virtually no civil and political rights at the time. They were not allowed to live in cities and white areas. They were crowded in townships far away from the cities where they worked. Each day, they had to go to work from the townships where they lived.

Alexandra was such a township, more than 10km from Johannesburg. People rode on buses of the Public Utility Transport Cooperation to and from the city for a fare of 4p. When this fare was increased to 5p, the people protested. They were payed so poorly that they could not afford the increase. So, they boycotted the buses.

People would wake up as early as 3 a.m. and walk to work. After the end of work, they would walk back home, arriving as late as 11 p.m. It became a political protest as well as an awakening to the ignorant white South Africans. The determination to continue with the boycott never faded in the black people. Their slogans were 'asinimali' (we have no money) and the more famous 'azikwelwa' (we will not ride).

The government and the bus company could not find a solution to the boycott. The Apartheid regime had to admit defeat in the end.

The reason this boycott became so successful was the fact that it had an economic as well as political meaning. Even though it was about the penny, it was not about the penny at the same time. The black people suddenly found an effective way of political struggle. Although it did little to change the immediate political picture of the country, it once more showed what a united mass action could do to a autocratic regime. Understanding this, the regime tried to prevent a massive protest of the black people by various means. But, none of it worked in the end and after trying in vain to prevent the inevitable, Apartheid crumbled a little over three decades later.

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